Black Girls Are Cutting Themselves as a Cry for Help, But No One’s Listening

CuttingA few months ago, I mentioned in passing that my daughter has been cutting herself. It’s an issue we’ve been dealing with for what seems like forever, but I haven’t really been comfortable talking about it, much less sharing our story because for one, there hasn’t been some miraculous, this-is-the-cure resolution, and secondly, it’s so deeply hurtful that I, as her mama, couldn’t figure out how to fix it or even prevent it in the first place.

A reader criticized me in the comments for outing my kid’s cutting and it made me scuttle backwards and clam up again. But because there may be other families out there struggling with the same heartbreaking problem—particularly in the black community, where no one talks about mental health issues, much less specific problems like this—I’m out again. And I hope, as Skylar gets older, she uses her story to help others dealing with the issue, as well. 


Sometime last year, during the course of a seemingly normal evening, I spotted an oozing gash across my daughter’s forearm. The wound was fresh, bright red, and fairly deep. I pulled her to me for a closer examination and asked her what happened to her arm. She waved away my concern in the nonchalant way that 12-year-olds do when they don’t feel like being bothered and said she scratched it on a nail on a classroom bulletin board. I knew that was a lie.

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The truth always has a way of coming out and eventually I learned she was cutting regularly. The discovery sent me into a panic. What did it mean? Was she suicidal? Even if she wasn’t, could she accidentally dig too deeply and slice a vein? It sounds so dramatic, but visions of waking up in the morning to find her in a pool of blood made me sick with worry.

I didn’t want anyone to write her off as a troubled child or a razor-wielding psycho. But she was cutting herself to vent her hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy, awkwardness, and despair. The normal angst of puberty was exacerbated by a tenuous relationship with her father and drama with friends and classmates who seemed to have the most tumultuous, fine-one-day, chaotic-the-next relationships I’d ever seen, even among tweenagers. I’m sure I contributed to her frustration, too. To release the emotions she couldn’t verbally express, she cut her arm and eventually, her belly and thigh, too.

A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry revealed that young black women are more likely than girls of any other race to self-harm, but the least likely to receive psychological treatment for it. And, even more surprisingly, black boys are the most likely to injure themselves. But getting help for our children is a minefield of challenges. There are financial constraints: mental health services are complicated by insurance logistics and out-of-pocket expenses. Plus, mental health care is still roundly stigmatized in the black community. And like eating disorders, self-injury was chalked up in the “things black people don’t do” department, as demonstrated by the utter shock of family and friends.

Those factors, together with the difficulty of finding a counselor who would even bother returning my calls, even in my urgency, have made for a frustrating experience on so many levels.

Not knowing exactly what triggers my daughter’s desire to cut has been frightening, to the point of being scared to discipline her for fear any kind of punishment will send her into a tailspin. On bad days, when she would come home from school upset or get scolded for something, I’d move her into my room at bedtime and trail her to the bathroom to keep her from cutting. I’ve herded the household scissors into a hiding place, but when the scissors were gone, she used paper clips. When the paper clips were snatched, she used earring posts. There’s an infinite supply of sharp-edged objects to inflict harm on the person who’s determined to self-mutilate.

Her cutting has waned over the last few months, but there are times when looking at her scars makes me want to break out into sobs. The psychiatrist we found diagnosed her with mild depression. But, she is holding off on medication in favor of regular sessions to try instilling the coping skills that will hopefully replace the urge to take her emotions out on her body.

Skylar is a beautiful girl, but she wears some pretty deep war wounds. For a long time, she wouldn’t be caught in short sleeves because she was embarrassed of her arm. Sometimes I’ll catch people looking at it. Eventually, I’ll look into a procedure to remove the scars. For now, I’m more concerned about healing the pain she takes out on her body in the first place.

Have you or anyone in your immediate circle ever struggled with self-injury?

Image via JD Hancock/Flickr

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